Remember when Madonna's American Life album was (mostly) attacked by U.S./U.K. critics and (mostly) ignored by U.S./U.K. listeners but went on to become one of her most celebrated albums in France? Critically and commercially, Madonna’s “W.E.” has already bombed in the U.S. and U.K. But, upon having finally seen it myself at an unintentionally private screening in Boston, I am left convinced that French audiences will love it as much as I did.
After much anticipation and a secretly massive dose of skepticism, I am so very happy not to be lying when I say that I absolutely LOVED “W.E.”. I can’t possibly write a review because it will come off as a studio plant’s phony attempt to coax people into seeing it. The people who need to see “W.E.” will discover it and the people who don’t will probably avoid it like the plague. Besides, I’m so high off of my own satisfaction, and especially my pride for Madonna, that I could not possibly care less about what people think of it or how much money it makes. It’s not like me to think that way about any aspect of Madonna’s career, what with my desire for her to always be on top and smashing records as she gets there. But the euphoria I get from seeing a movie which I truly adore, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks, supersedes my most cynical impulses. And I truly adored “W.E.”.
I’ve been awaiting this film for several years, and like many Madonna fans, I was slightly frustrated that her music career was put on hold by such a risky project. But I knew it was a worthy risk, for I’d dreamed of “Madonna, the filmmaker” for years and years—in spite of her occasionally promising but mostly unfulfilling pseudo-debut, Filth And Wisdom. I didn’t think that that was a terrible film, despite what I’d feared from excerpted clips, but it felt more like a long lost film student’s project than a proper debut. “W.E.” is that proper debut. As is the case with Madonna’s albums, videos, and stage shows, I relish its imperfections as much as its strengths, and I’m sure that generations of fans will come to as well—I suspect that the film is destined for greatness as a minor cult classic thanks to its deeply spiritual themes and bold defiance of conventional narrative form. Adherence to a rigid three act structure is replaced by a loose, deliberately planned yet seemingly haphazard journey through time and space. As a movie lover, I was delighted by the opportunity not to know what was coming next. As a screenwriter, I was reminded of how much the cinematic instincts on display in Madonna's music has affected me; here it is her musical instincts that are being put to use on film. I speak of not only the rhythmic editing of multiple film stocks, but also the jarring spatial and thematic shifts that keep the pace from dragging or the proceedings from sinking into sappiness. If anything, I thought the film could have used a bit more sap—when Edward tells Wallis he’ll abdicate the throne for her, my heart was craving an instrumental prompt of Madonna's “Masterpiece”.
In spite of her romantic tendencies, avoiding pop sentimentality is clearly Madonna’s taste as a film fan, and in turn she stands by this as a filmmaker—after all, Madonna, unlike me, was not particularly enamored with James Cameron’s Titanic. But slickness and uptempo pacing are not the only attributes ported over from Madonna’s music career. The assembly of scenes feels more like the arrangement of a concept album than an outline to a contemporary Hollywood screenplay. I applaud her decision to flex her creative muscles as a director instead of surrendering to a widely accepted mindset shared by the people who would come to negatively review her film.
I put up my “Vogue Boy” video in anticipation of the world premiere of “W.E.” because I dreamed that someone would ask Madonna about my video while she walked the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival. I followed the film’s trek from Venice to Toronto to New York to LA and back to New York for its American premiere and proper release. All the while, I was committed to seeing the film in Boston, where I’d previously seen every single one of Madonna’s films since Four Rooms in 1995. Prior to that, seeing Dick Tracy on the big screen made me a lifelong Madonna mega-fan. Seeing A League of Their Own sparked my inner commitment to making films that appealed to audiences the way that WWII Era “women’s films” did. No Madonna movie-going experience could be quite as epic as the night I saw Evita, but all of my first Madonna movie viewings have special significance, and "W.E." was among the top highlights.
Attending a Monday night show was not a surefire bet for a packed house, particularly considering the film’s poor business in limited release. But I did not expect that I and my sister Jennifer Jeffrey, who like Madonna is a budding female filmmaker, would have the whole auditorium to ourselves. We did, and it made for a more relaxed viewing: minus the insecurities of how the audience was reacting to more daring filmmaking choices allowed me to appreciate the movie as an admittedly flawed but totally fulfilling work of art-as-entertainment. I suppose the inevitable sadness I should have felt for the lack of an audience dissipated instantly as a result of the lights going down as soon as we took our seats. With only two tickets having been sold, the theater didn't bother to show more than three minutes' worth of coming attractions. Either that, or someone in the projection booth timed the start of the film with our arrival. It’s a shame that so few people will end up seeing it on the big screen, because it’s gorgeous to look at and stunning to listen to: Abel Korzeniowski’s truly exquisite score is a powerhouse in surround sound, and an invaluable asset to the film. The big screen setting also captures the oppression that dominates both Wally (Abbie Cornish) and Wallis (Andrea Riseborough), and the ever-moving camera makes it difficult to look away. The script may not be rock-solid, but Madonna’s talent as a director matches her talent as a stage performer, and thus the overall impact is similarly “WOW”-inducing. After seeing it for myself, I’m honestly glad that it won’t be labeled “an Oscar film”. It IS a shame that such a promising debut should be mercilessly slaughtered by critics and ignored by audiences, but the initial rejection by the masses does add to the rebel quality of a film that refuses to cater to the crowd that it would appear to be appealing to—much like Wallis Simpson herself.
Thanks to its upcoming home video release and today’s announcement that the film will be streaming on Netflix instead of premium television, I look forward to it being discovered by young women who are feeling frustrated by a repressive society and looking for mentorship from those who have broken free. The decision to so brazenly depict the concept of a spirit guide speaks to Madonna’s own spiritual beliefs and her adamant refusal to downplay such convictions—even, and most especially, when it threatens the very commercial success that she is ever gauged by. In this regard, the film is as shameless as anything Madonna has ever done, and her commitment to every single aspect of its execution, good or bad, speaks to her belief in the message she has built it upon. Its message is deeply spiritual, and quite literal, and should survive the test of time to rise above the cries of critics. “W.E.” made me feel so happy and optimistic when I came home from seeing it that I had to immediately write my thought down, lest I ever forget the sensation of satisfaction following years of anticipation and months of bad press. I know it will continue to inspire that response in surprised viewers for the rest of time.